In addition to enhancing traditional public transportation availability in Judea and Samaria, the government must look into other suitable modes of travel – such as minibuses or shuttles on demand, officials and area residents recommended on Monday.
“Traveling through hitchhiking is a major problem, and we must eliminate it by means of public transportation improvements or organized rides and other methods,” said MK David Tsur (Hatnua), chairman of the Knesset Subcommittee for the War on Traffic Accidents.
Tsur addressed participants attending a special meeting of his subcommittee – under the Economic Affairs Committee – that focused on “the frequency of public transportation and traveling through hitchhiking,” on Monday morning. The subcommittee was convened in light of the abduction and murder of Naftali Fraenkel, Gil-Ad Shaer and Eyal Yifrah from a hitchhiking post in Gush Etzion.
In light of the tragic events, the issue of public transportation in West Bank communities has become even more relevant and remains a responsibility of the government and not of the children involved, Tsur stressed.
Providing background for the meeting participants, the Transportation Ministry’s Public Transportation Authority director, Meir Chen, emphasized that in recent years Judea and Samaria have seen widespread upgrades in public transportation, with bus frequency in Samaria increased by 35 percent and by 15% in the Binyamin region, Gush Etzion and South Hebron Hills.
Where demand for public transportation is higher, there are more bus rides available, and many new bus lines – including night routes – were launched as of July 1, Chen said.
The Egged bus company began to operate a new line from Neveh Daniel to the Beit Shemesh train station on July 1, as well as a second from Neveh Daniel to Kfar Etzion and a third from Jerusalem to Nokdim in Gush Etzion. In addition, the company launched two night lines, which run from the settlements of Ofra and Kfar Etzion to and from Jerusalem. A line runs from Tel Aviv to and from Modi’in and passes through several Samaria settlements en route.
Chen acknowledged, however, that the situation is far from ideal.
“There are some communities where buses do arrive once every three hours,” he said.
As a consequence of the kidnappings and the resultant understanding that hitchhiking travel must be minimized, the Transportation Ministry has launched an action plan in three steps, Chen explained. The first involves the operation of new lines at the beginning of July, as per the request of local council heads, he said. The second stage will occur in October through December, when many Egged routes will be transferred to the Egged-Taavura company, through which service will be improved significantly, Chen pledged. A third step will be a more long-term plan that requires the purchase of 30 new protected buses for public transportation purposes, he said.
“There are buses that are already 15-years-old,” Chen added.
Eli Dashevsky, a representative from the Defense Ministry’s operations division, explained that the IDF will determine where to make use of armored buses, and that the Home Front Command will implement these decisions. Dashevsky estimated that some NIS 250 million would be required for the next five years to accomplish the task.
Moran Mazor, head of the Finance Ministry’s transportation division, stressed that he felt that in the upcoming budget deliberations for 2015, a solution would be found.
Many residents of the region, however, were not content to wait until 2015.
“We need the money for protection now, not to wait until 2015,” Yisrael Gantz, deputy chairman of Mateh Binyamin Regional Council said. “We also need to protect the hitchhiking posts by adding lighting, cameras and panic buttons.”
Gantz spoke of the constant arguments between the Finance and Defense ministries over budgeting issues, adding that no one will choose a bus that takes two hours over a 45-minute car ride.
Adding another 30 armored buses to the region’s public transportation might not solve the area’s problems, warned Dr. Yaniv Ronen, of the Knesset Research and Information Center. Ronen prepared a document for the subcommittee session, outlining how many of the lines running through the region involve poor planning and lack proper service.
Looking at other rural sectors outside of the West Bank, Ronen examined alternative transportation models that might fit the region, such as that of Misgav Regional Council in the Galilee. The council runs certain bus lines “on demand,” so that passengers who need bus services can contact a local council hotline, which sends buses as needed, he explained.
Tsur recommended that a number of short- and longterm steps be taken, including an examination of different solutions such as armored minibuses that might be more suited for travel among small communities.
The chairman also instructed Defense Ministry officials to examine the possibility for security mechanisms at hitchhiking posts, as suggested by subcommittee participants.
Tsur called upon regional and local council heads to publicize and encourage the use of community shuttles, and also stressed that the budgetary situation for Judea and Samaria must be different for the next year.